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How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

Addiction Counseling Session

Substance abuse counseling can be traced all the way back to the 1750s, when Native American tribes began building abstinence-based movements and practices to treat alcoholism.  Since that time, people have worked against the building chaos of substances in equally chaotic ways–think, prohibition, inebriate asylums, treating alcoholism with cocaine, etc.  The misuse of alcohol and drugs has recently hit devastating numbers across the U.S.  Victims of addiction have hard journeys to take, facing crises inflicted upon themselves as well as those closest to them.  Thankfully, although perhaps there are still many improvements to be made, today’s methods of treatment help people everywhere battle the painful fight against addiction; think, the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act.  Substance abuse counselors work with and for patients struggling with addiction, helping clients reach goals, find and sustain work, and practice sobriety safely and positively.  

So, how can you become a substance abuse or addictions counselor from where you are now?  Read on to learn more about the what, why and how of this high-demand profession!

What is a Substance Abuse Counselor?

A substance abuse counselor is a mental health professional who helps patients struggling with addictions. The main responsibility is to work with individuals and their families to treat both mental and emotional disorders, as well as to promote overall mental health.

Sometimes called “therapists,” mental health counselors train in a variety of therapeutic techniques. They treat emotional conditions, such as depression, addiction and substance abuse, suicidal impulses, stress and overall problems with self-esteem and grief.

Also known as drug and alcohol counselors, these professionals work individually with patients and in group counseling sessions, depending on the kind of treatment needed. The goal is to help clients pinpoint situations and behaviors that lead to relapse or block the road to recovery. Drug counselors can also help clients find jobs or refer them to other resources, services, and support groups.
In some cases, an addiction counselor may also conduct programs or informational sessions that teach not only their clients, but also family and friends of patients about addiction, behavioral disorders, coping strategies, signs of addiction, and how to avoid destructive behavior.

Mental health professionals work in a variety of environments with a diverse demographic of people. They often work flexible hours to accommodate families in crisis or those who require evening or weekend appointments.  Addiction counseling and drug counseling is offered in general health care facilities such as state, local, and private hospitals or in private practices. Prisons, probation and parole agencies, detox centers, halfway houses, and juvenile detention facilities are also common work environments for substance abuse counselors. They work closely with other health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, psychiatric nurses and school counselors.

Job descriptions may vary but skills such as active listening, social perceptiveness, critical thinking, and deductive reasoning are all paramount to success and safety as a counselor.  Specific work responsibilities can include:

  • Maintaining client records
  • Writing reports and evaluations
  • Interviewing and assessing clients
  • Collaborating with other professionals to evaluate clients and patients

How to Become a Substance Abuse Counselor

There are four distinct steps to become a substance abuse counselor:

  1. Earn an accredited counseling degree;
  2. Work as a counselor and acquire supervised clinical practice hours;
  3. Pass a felony and child abuse background check;
  4. Pass a national or state licensing or certification exam post-degree.

Substance Abuse Counselor Degrees


I want to change my career and become a substance abuse counselor. I currently work in sales. I want to consider only the best online psychology schools. No degree mills. My bachelor’s GPA was 4.0 with a general psychology major. Can you give me a list of online counseling master’s that will help me become a therapist or addiction counselor? I’d like an American Psychological Association (APA) accredited program.

—Jamie in California


The APA only accredits doctoral degree programs, internship, or postdoctoral residency programs. First, check your state licensing requirements then follow the tips below to launch your counseling career.

There are different types of credentials you can earn to become a certified substance abuse counselor. The education requirements of an addiction counselor depend on governing boards and state licensing agencies.

Associate’s Degree

Some states require only an associate’s degree in psychology or counseling. A two-year degree covers the basics of treating patients and working as an addictions treatment counselor.

Key topics covered through an online substance abuse counseling degree associate’s may include:

  • Theories of Counseling
  • Case Management
  • Family and Group Counseling
  • Multicultural Counseling
  • Psychology

 An associate’s degree can help an individual seeking advancement into this career field by qualifying them for entry-level positions such as:

  • Human services assistants
  • Administrative positions in a halfway house
  • Adolescent Counselor

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree in addiction counseling prepares prospective alcohol and drug program counselors with fundamental skills and knowledge associated with the field and qualifies those individuals for higher, better paying positions.

Bachelor’s degree programs generally take three to four years to complete. A substance abuse counseling degree online at this level covers the following subjects in-depth:

  • Group and Individual Counseling
  • Psychological Evaluations and Assessments
  • Diagnosis of Chemical or Behavioral Dependency
  • Addiction Psychology and Sociology
  • Pharmacology and Psychopharmacology

Though a bachelor’s degree is considered sufficient for counselors in most states to acquire certification, a master’s degree in this field is required in some and preferred in most states.

Online Counseling Master’s Degree

Despite state requirements, a master’s degree is the best educational program for those looking to become substance abuse counselors because of increased career opportunities.

Requirements for private practice typically include the completion of a master’s degree in counseling. You may also need to complete at least two years or 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience beyond a master’s program.

A substance abuse counseling graduate program equips students with skills and knowledge concerning in-treatment and prevention methods for addiction patients. Courses in these programs include:

  • Methods and Techniques of Group Counseling
  • Contemporary Topics in Substance Abuse
  • Assessment, Counseling, and Diagnosis of an Individual
  • Treatment Methods for Drug or Alcohol Abuse

Many of these programs require students to complete an internship, as well as a thesis or capstone project.

Specializations or concentrations for a graduate program in substance abuse counseling include:

  • Drug Abuse Counselor
  • Alcohol Abuse Counselor
  • Clinical Counseling

Students should choose their concentration according to their career goals. Those who want to work in medical and healthcare-specific environments should consider a concentration in clinical counseling. Those who wish to work in social work environments should consider rehabilitation counseling concentrations.

None of the above are APA accredited (as we discussed earlier, the American Psychological Association only accredits doctoral programs), but all are either regionally accredited or nationally accredited.

Degree Tip: Choose only regionally accredited schools if you want to qualify for an APA-approved doctoral program later in your career.

To qualify for these programs, prospective students should have at least a bachelor’s degree in a counseling or psychology-related field, as well as some work experience. Many programs also require scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

Substance Abuse Counselor Certification

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of counselor licensing that governs the practice of mental health counseling.

Explore requirements for the Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) credential in your state. The Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) credential is appropriate for counselors looking to specialize in family therapy.

In California, for example, more than one type of licensing might be needed to engage in substance abuse counseling. Visit the California Board of Behavioral Sciences’ website for an alphabet soup of licensing options.

Most states require counselors to take state board licensing exams like the National Counseling Exam (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE) to become a licensed professional counselor. You must also complete a certain number of counseling hours (supervised by a licensed psychologist) and pass written and oral exams. Felony and other background checks are required.

Mental health counselors may also elect to be certified by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). This national agency grants a general practice credential,  the Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor (CCMHC). The CCMHC is widely recognized nationwide and may be required by some employers.

Make sure you understand the state licensing board requirements where you intend to practice counseling before enrolling in any online psychology degree program. Counseling is a highly regulated field because it involves public health and safety. All programs will require supervised internships and the completion of a very specific type of online psychology degree.

Online Counseling Degrees for Career Change

The Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC) offers drug and alcohol counselor certification for licensed professionals looking to redirect their careers. Programs include:

  • Nicotine Dependence Specialist
  • National Certified Adolescent Addiction Counselor
  • National Endorsed Student Assistance Professional
  • National Clinical Supervision Endorsement
  • National Endorsed Co-Occurring Disorders Professional
  • National Peer Recovery Support Specialist
  • Recover to Practice (RTP) Certificate
  • Conflict Resolution in Recovery Certificate

The NBCC also offers specialty counseling certifications and training in areas of addictions and clinical mental health. Counselors still need to seek out the specified regulations of their state counseling boards in order to acquire licensure to practice in their state.

Don’t have a background in psychology? Don’t worry. Teachers, ministers and healthcare aides often cross over into counseling careers. Many who hold bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts, philosophy, religion, humanities or social science go on to earn a master’s in counseling. Consider enrolling in an online substance abuse course to kick off your career transition.

Addiction Counselor Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects substance abuse counselor jobs will grow by 25% through the year 2029— a much faster rate than the average for all occupations.

States are creating networks to improve services for children with serious emotional disturbances and their families. These networks need staffing.

The criminal justice system will create additional demand for licensed professional counselors to treat drug offenders as an alternative to jail time.

Substance abuse professionals who have earned a master’s degree, have professional and field experience, and have earned specialized accreditation or certification have the best job prospects in this field.

Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, as well as nursing and residential care facilities employed 44% of substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors. Individual and family services, as well as non-education and hospital state and local government facilities make up around 13% of the rest of the prospective jobs.

Substance Abuse Counselor Salary

The median certified substance abuse counselor salary is around $47,660 as of 2020, according to the BLS. The highest 10% earned more than $78,700.

The BLS also reports that those who work in community and social service counselor occupations earned more on average— around $50,500 a year.

Because counselors are a less-expensive alternative to psychiatrists and psychologists, managed care insurers increasingly prefer to hire and reimburse counselors who hold master’s degrees as opposed to psychologists with doctorate degrees.

Government agencies generally pay the highest wages, followed by hospitals and social service agencies. Residential care facilities often pay the lowest wages. Many drug and alcohol counselors start out as interns in residential care and move up as they complete their intern hours and earn their licensing credentials.

Find a Substance Abuse Counselor Program Today!

GetEducated offers pertinent information about online degrees available to those seeking entry into new careers, professional transitions, and any credential that can push adults forward in today’s competitive marketplace.  Click the link below to start your search for online substance abuse counseling degrees!